A whiff of licorice. As I brushed past the hummingbird mint, its fragrance filled the air, and I had a sudden flash of memory from childhood.
We were on a drive through the Colorado Rockies, possibly to enjoy a "three-picnic day," and had stopped at a mom-and-pop gas station on the edge of a tumble-down town. It was made of logs, and the inside was cool and dark and musty. Dirty windows glowed golden with sunlight but didn't let much of it through; tiny cobwebs shone in their corners. At the counter a mountain man with a bush of a beard presided over the cash register. Lined up in front of him was a row of open glass canisters, filled with long, unwrapped sticks of hard candy in costume-jewelry colors.
Mom gave an exclamation of delight—"Penny candy!" It actually cost more than that, maybe 5¢, and we children were allowed to choose two sticks each. They had wonderful, old-fashioned names: sarsaparilla, horehound. I chose horehound and licorice, but when we got back to the old Plymouth and tasted our treats, they were disappointing—flavorless, a little dusty. At the ripe old age of six or so, I felt a pang of nostalgia for the olden days, when penny candy was still good enough to exclaim over in delight.
The odd bite of homesickness for something I had never known made that experience lodge in memory. Nostalgia for the past got mixed up with that present moment to make a new story, to become a small part of the lore of my life. Some day I shall inflict it on my niece and nephews, and maybe they'll become nostalgic for family picnics and log-built, mom-and-pop gas stations, for the days when penny candy only cost a nickel.
Agastache rupestris—licorice mint or hummingbird mint—is good at inspiring nostalgia. The soft, sage-green of its foliage and the salmon-colored flowers have something pleasantly faded about them, like a favorite shirt that has been worn and laundered to softness, or a Polaroid photograph of a long-ago family outing. The fragrance, too, like licorice (some say root beer) with a hint of rain, is an evocative one; it's overpowering when you're cutting back a whole plant in late winter, but refreshing in small doses. It always reminds me of the early days in the garden, when I had several agastache growing: the cool spring day when I planted them and ran my hand through their leaves in greeting; Luther T. Dog coming in from his evening rounds, wearing the scent of licorice on his coat; crisp winter mornings when I crumbled the equally crisp dried leaves to release the fragrance of summer.
In the relatively kind conditions of morning sun and dappled shade, however, the agastache grew twice as tall and wide as they should have—taller than the sand cherries, almost as tall as me. It became impossible to maneuver around without breaking their stems. Luther would go outside, look at the impassable jungle, and just give up, and despair is not something I like to see in a dog. (Or, indeed, anyone.) The agastache had become a problem, but the decision to dig them out was still a hard one.
I've missed them. It's probably a bit too soon to call the feeling fully-fledged nostalgia, but not having them around has made the garden feel incomplete. This summer I'm trying agastache again in containers: urns this time, to suit their long tap roots. They generally mark the entrance to the garden proper, but lately I've moved them back closer to the Adirondack chair where they can get more direct sunlight.
The hummingbirds love them. They have come to tolerate the autumn sage, and they'll toy with the gaura and sample everything else, but the agastache is always their first, most enthusiastic choice. As they feed, they are so close to me in the chair that I could reach out—not even stretching—and touch them. Those moments have been some of the most magical of the whole summer.
Nostalgia is such a funny thing. It's backward-looking yet also somehow creative. Just as you can never really go home again, you can't really re-create something you've lost; you can never recapture it exactly. But you can incorporate something of the old into present circumstances and create something new from the mix—something that starts off a fresh round of stories, that creates its own set of memories.
They will become their own source of nostalgia in turn.